The Development of Medieval Full Plate Armor in Europe

Literature Review

In my initial studies of medieval armor I examined six sources. At first I searched the Internet for broad information on the topic and found a few sites of interest. The most useful website that I found appeared to be a personal work that discussed some influences in the development of metal armor. Then I turned to bound literary works for more precise information. Five such sources proved useful to me.

The first source I will discuss here is a large folio entitled Medieval Warfare by H.W. Koch. This book discusses details on the weapons, armor, and battles of medieval times. From what I had read, Koch writes rather eloquently, but the topics do not suit the subject of this paper. Instead I examined the artwork reproduced in the folio. The paintings provided primary source information about the armor that existed and how it was used during the Middle Ages. Using paintings to study technology does have its risks though. Unlike photographs, paintings are subject to the interpretations of the painter and the painter is not always accurate. In a large number of medieval works the painter never intends to be accurate. Such inaccuracies are especially evident in fifteenth century portrayals of ancient heroes such as Alexander the Great and his soldiers donning full chain mail and plate armor.

Another source that I looked at was Richard Barber's The Knight and Chivalry. In this book Barber restates many of the older beliefs about medieval armor that are now contested by modern historians. In some parts his technological determinist views proclaim how certain technologies caused armor to appear or how the appearance of new armor led to new technologies, such as in his statement, "The knight's role in the actual fighting was strongly influenced by the development of armour." (Barber 193) Barber's main argument about armor seems to be that medieval armor was ineffective in combat and ultimately failed because it restricted mobility too much without enough gain in protection. I disagree with many of Barber's statements in favor of the arguments presented in the other sources.

Gerhard Jaritz presents views opposite to Barber's on his Internet website. Jaritz states that "Modern reconstructions have shown that fighters in full suits of mail or plate can perform cartwheels, leap up directly from the ground, and even sprint for short distances." (Jaritz http://www.ceu.hu/medstud/manual/SRM/armor.htm) Furthermore, he argues that medieval armor was extremely effective and rendered armored warriors almost invincible. The contradicting views of these two authors presents another problem in the study of medieval armor. There is really no way to tell how effective armor was in battle unless it is actually tested in a real battle situation. All we can do is examine the evidence we have and make informed speculations based on our findings.

The remaining three sources I have examined are less extreme in their arguments, but offer a wealth of seemingly objective information. Particularly interesting is Stephen Turnbull's Book of the Medieval Knight, which details many of the causes, effects, and consequences of new advances in armor. Turnbull does a great job in describing the development of armor in terms of actor/network theory by outlining specific events and problems that forced changes in existing armor designs. Change might not have occurred so quickly as suggested by Turnbull, but his argument is presented thoughtfully and convincingly.

Another book, The Shield and the Sword by Ernle Bradford is not extremely interesting, but one comment did stand out. Bradford acknowledges that it took tremendous amounts of training and endurance for a medieval knight to effectively wear heavy armor and use weapons in combat, such that modern men cannot perceive how medieval arms could ever have been used effectively. He quotes, "It is one of the mysteries in the history of armour how the crusaders can have fought under the scorching sun of the East in thick quilted garments covered with excessively heavy chain mail." (Bradford 40) What was effective in the middle ages may not be effective in modern times, so one cannot argue that medieval arms were ineffective and failed. Any technology that endured and evolved over several hundred years as metal armor did must have been useful. Medieval armor had lived up to its main purpose of saving lives.

The final source that I looked at was The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel. The focus of the book is not on medieval knights and warfare, but it focuses on medieval invention. Because of this, it offers a different perspective on the development of armor. Armor was only briefly mentioned, but Gimpel discussed medieval iron production in detail. According to Gimpel, armor production during the middle ages was much higher than I had anticipated, facilitating the ability to equip entire armies with metal armor. Though heavy armor was exclusively used among the wealthy, some rulers were wealthy enough to amass fairly large armies of heavy calvary.

The main trend that I noticed among all of my sources was that older books tended to argue that armor was very slow and ineffective, whereas modern sources tended to claim that armor was crafted well enough that it was fairly light, easy to maneuver in, and highly effective. I believe that it was more of the latter, or else plate armor would never have evolved into the glorious heavy suits that we all know from legend.

Description of Medieval Full Plate Armor

Medieval full plate armor at its height was an extremely complex piece of technology. There was a protective plate for just about every part of the body and each of these plates had its own name. Furthermore, through its development over several hundred years several pieces have appeared only to go out of style because of new advances in arms making. During the Middle Ages there were two main types of metal armor. These were chain mail armor and plate armor. Often both of these types were used in conjunction to achieve the best features of each.

Chain mail armor was used very extensively throughout the medieval times. It consisted of thousands of riveted iron rings to form a mesh. The chain mesh was then crafted into relatively light protective garments such as shirts or leggings. A chain mail shirt was called a hauberk or byrnie, while mail leggings for the lower legs and feet were called the chausses. Hauberks and chausses were made at varying lengths depending on how much weight the warrior could carry for protection. Usually heavy padding was worn underneath chain mail armor to prevent painful chafing and absorb the shock of blows taken in battle. This padding was called the gambeson or aketon. Gambesons were simply tunics packed with wool and were used early in the Middle Ages. The aketons worn later on were padded garments that were lighter than gambesons.

Other parts of chain mail armor that were later developments were the coif, aventail, and gauntlets. The coif and aventail are essentially the same thing except for one difference. A coif is a chain mail hood that protected the head and neck. The aventail was a later improvement on the coif where chain mail was attached to a helmet and allowed to drape over the shoulders to protect the upper head area. Gauntlets for chain mail were mainly iron mesh mittens to protect the hands.

The main use of chain mail was to protect warriors from sword wounds in battle. The sword had been the primary weapon for thousands of years and chain mail was designed to counter its effectiveness. All but the most direct strikes by edged weapons simply glanced off of chain mail armor. It was only later when piercing and bludgeoning weapons became widely used that plate armor became essential.

Plate armor was a much more complicated type of armor because it was not as flexible as chain mail. I described chain mail in detail earlier because most plate armor is based on chain mail. For most of the Middle Ages, plate armor simply meant chain mail with iron plates covering vulnerable areas. At the height medieval armor, plate armor had little or no chain mail parts.

Full plate armor was a complex piece of equipment indeed. It consisted of too many distinct individual plates to describe briefly and each plate was carefully fitted to the dimensions of the warrior who would wear the suit. A full suit of plate armor in the sixteenth century covered every square inch of a soldier's body with iron plate that was carefully grooved for maximum strength.

Some important parts of plate armor were the helmet, breastplate, gauntlets, couter, and the greave. The helmet was protective iron headgear that came in many forms. The style of helmet that was worn with full plate armor in its full glory was the armet and bevor, which covered the entire head, neck and face while still allowing the wearer to turn his head. The breastplate protected the entire chest and stomach area of the warrior with a large plate of metal. Plate gauntlets, unlike the chain mail ones, were very complex works of metalworking that covered the hands with iron plates while allowing free movement of the fingers. The couter was a metal joint that protected the elbows. Finally the greave was simply an iron shin guard.

German full plate armor in the sixteenth century represented the height of personal body armor in all of human history. This armor was called Maximilian armor and it was nearly impenetrable by all hand-powered weapons at the time. Even arrows and crossbow bolts were known to bounce off of such armor harmlessly. Furthermore, Maximilian armor distributed weight evenly throughout the body allowing freedom of movement and jogging.

The Development of Full Plate Armor

The development of full plate armor in Europe ran parallel to the development of weaponry. Armor has always been most effective when used in melee combat. The Middle Ages marked a time period when hand-to-hand combat was the dominant tactic in warfare. Thus, the weaponry created a desire for increased body protection while advancements in armor created a need for more effective weapons.

The development of full plate armor began with the bronze plate piece armor used by great ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and the Romans, but according to Bradford, "after the barbarian invasions of the western empire, it had practically disappeared." (Bradford 39) Metal body armor once again came into widespread use when "new methods of shock combat [was] introduced by the Franks in the eighth century". (Gimpel 64) "Shock combat" is a term used for the primary war tactic used during the Middle Ages. Battles in the medieval times would involve the two sides gathering their soldiers at a battlefield, then charging into each other for brutal hand-to-hand combat. Armor became popular in this kind of combat because it greatly reduced the amount of war casualties inflicted during battle.

Around the turn of the first millennium, chain mail was invented and quickly came into wide use because of its deflective properties against swords. Most military combat of that time was of the hand-to-hand type using swords or other edged weapons, so simply wearing a chain mail shirt to battle reduced the risk of becoming mortally wounded by a cut to the body. The main problem with this was that just chain mail shirt was very expensive and didn't really offer enough protection to be worth the price. So warriors began to wear gambesons underneath their mail shirts for the combined protection provided by primitive pad armor along with the added protection by the iron links.

Chain mail was the main type of armor used during the Crusades because iron production had advanced to the point where excellent iron products could be mass-produced. As proof that mass production of iron goods existed in the Middle Ages, Gimpel states that "Richard I ordered fifty thousand [horseshoes] from the sixty or so forges set up in the Forest of Dean." (64) Chain mail was ideal for the travelling foot soldier because it was effective in combat but yet relatively light and very flexible. By the end of the thirteenth century, full body chain mail as well as mail armor for horses came into common use by the wealthy elite. Some blacksmiths even began to combine iron plates with chain mail for increased protection.

In the fourteenth century there was growing evidence that mail armor was inadequate against modern weaponry. Bows and crossbows had come into wide use because of their success against armored men in several large battles. The crossbow was a deadly new weapon that could even penetrate armored knights. In fact, "it was so deadly that its use came under discussion in the twelfth century at one of history's first disarmament conferences." (Gimpel 64) Turnbull recounts a slaughter of mail-clad Swedish peasants at Wisby in 1361 as the main proof of this. Most of the Swedes were killed by arrows and crossbow bolts penetrating their mail armor. "at least 125 men had suffered fatal headwounds from arrows and crossbow bolts which had struck their mail hoods. In many cases the arrowheads were found inside the skulls." (Turnbull 43) Events such as this one underlined the need for heavy plate armor capable of withstanding piercing blows by ranged weapons.

The 'plate revolution' was already well underway in the 14th century and breastplates, full helmets, and even iron plate gauntlets came into common use by knights. For the first time in the Middle Ages, iron armor was common among all soldiers. Probably fewer than five percent of soldiers during this time had a full suit of armor, but most had some form of piece armor such as helmets, shields, or breastplates.

Metal armor reached the height of its usefulness some time during the fifteenth century. Alwhite armor had come into fashion, characterized by smooth polished steel plates overlapping at the joints. The last remnants of chain mail was still in use in the form of mail skirts and aventail, but was going out of style. Later advances in head protection and reinforcing iron soon produced full plate armor in its full glory.

The aventail style of head protection featured a helmet called a bascinet with a mail cape attached to it in order to protect the neck and shoulder areas. Later on in the fifteenth century the great bascinet replaced the aventail. The great bascinet replaced the mail neck protection with solid iron and made it impossible for a knight to move his head independent of his body. The great bascinet eliminated the need for any chain mail at all in suits of armor. Towards the end of the fifteenth century the great bascinet was replaced by the armet and bevor, which provided complete head protection but also allowed some free movement of the head.

The other major advance in full plate armor during the fifteenth century was the process of strengthening iron by putting grooves in it. The grooves produced a spiky look in the armor that some like to call "Gothic plate" and was also highly fashionable at the time. With the added reinforcement in the armor, late fifteenth century armor became nearly impenetrable.

Throughout the long history of armor there have been periodic hints that ranged weapons would spell the end of personal body armor. Battles such as the massacre at Wisby or the battle of Poitiers pointed out the vulnerabilities of many types of armor to arrows and crossbow bolts. With each such demonstration armorers responded by adding more plates or more deflective properties to the armor. By the sixteenth century guns came into wide use and heavy armor lost any effectiveness it once had. In fact, armor only made for a larger and slower target in the face of gunfire. With guns becoming increasingly powerful and accurate, heavy body armor became useless. There was some effort to produce thicker armor to block bullets, but the armor simply became too heavy to wear effectively. By the sixteenth century guns had killed chivalry and brought Europe out of the Middle Ages. Today the only legacy of iron medieval armor that remains is the helmet, which protected our soldiers in the trenches of World War I. Some would even say that modern army tanks are the descendants of full plate armor because they represent man's drive to create a completely impenetrable weapon of war.

Bibliography

Barber, Richard. The Knight & Chivalry. London: Longman, 1970.

Bradford, Ernle. The Shield and the Sword. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1973.

Gimpel, Jean. The Medieval Machine. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Jaritz, Gerhard. 2 October 2000. Arms and Armor in the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance: Armor. Available [Online]: <http://www.ceu.hu/medstud/manual/SRM/armor.htm> [2 October 2000].

Koch, H.W. Medieval Warfare. London: Bison Books, 1978.

Nickel, Helmut. 2 October 2000. Funk & Wagnalls Knowledge Center: Armor. Available [Online]: <http://www.fwkc.com/encyclopedia/low/articles/a/a002000988f.html> [2 October 2000].

Nofi, Albert A. and Dunnigan, James F. 27 November 2000. Evolution of Medieval Warfare. Available [Online]: <http://www.hyw.com/Books/History/Evolutio.htm> [27 November 2000].

Seay, Jennie. 1 November 2000. Delusion Land Medieval. Available [Online]: <http://delusionland.dreamhost.com/medieval/> [1 November 2000].

Turnbull, Stephen. The Book of the Medieval Knight. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1985.

Commentary by L.A. Long (jake356@optonline.net)

Another good source about the capabilities of medieval armor and weapons is a company called Museum Replicas Limited. They actually manufacture the replicas on display in the Tower of London. They have an armor that describes the evolution that you discussed, from chain mail to full plate. They call it "transitional mail" which was the heaviest of all the armors at about 60 lbs. It's a combination of both chain and plate mail.

There were several items you discussed, that I would like to comment about. First of all very good job of sifting through the hogwash. If anyone says that medieval armor was totally ineffective, it's a sure sign they don't know the least bit about it. One of the points I would like to mention was the firearm. I have heard many different views about just how heavy armor became obsolete. Firearms were a big factor no doubt, but I have heard several other factors including economic and social change. One of the biggest issues which is always overlooked, is that the bows of that period became so powerful, that although they could not penetrate full plate mail, they could knock the knight off his horse. Firearms were in existence since the late 1300's and its first really effective use was in the Battle of Bicocca in 1522 and again in the Battle of Pavia 1525. I know you probably know most of this but it is annoying assumption that I see on a lot of history and discovery specials, spouting something like, the firearm was invented and the next day everyone packed away their plate mail. The Massacre at Wisby is a great example of how nasty a bow can be. Great insight there, about the ranged weapons taking precedence over melee, that was an excellent choice. A large factor that was overlooked though, was the ineffectiveness of cavalry against pike formations, such as in the Burgundian wars 1476 - 1477.

The other item was the evolution of the melee weapons that were used against the armor. At first a sword was highly valued if it was sharp, strong and light. Fullers or "blood grooves" were carved from the blade to reduce its weight, yet retain its strength. As you mentioned, this was useful against soldiers that wore light armor and chain mail. As the armor became heavier, so did the weapons and the armor became heavier still, to compensate. The heaviest swords near the height of the period did not even have a very sharp edge. Referred to as a "battle edge," the long two handed sword was more a bludgeoning weapon, that just happened to have a semi sharp blade. You state that it was piercing and bludgeoning weapons that fueled this change, but even edged weapons changed to reflect the heavier armor. It's ironic that armor was originally intended for mostly melee style combat, but the firearm never removed melee from the battlefield. The swords changed from slashing to piercing weapons, such as the rapier and pike. Even today the latest U.S. army M4A1 has a lug for fitting a bayonet and the soldiers wear Kevlar armor. Hopefully the armor will one day win the struggle and maybe people will see the futility of war.

Written by Steve Alvesteffer, http://stormshock.com